15 Aug 2013

A Long Weekend in Brussels - It's All About the Beer (Day 1)

A summer weekend in Brussels finished off a little series of trips that my husband and I have been doing for the past few years. First it was the oh-so-cute Bruges, followed by the also-cute-but-a-little-less-touristy university town Ghent, then diamond-rich Antwerp, and last-but-not-least Brussels, the country's capital. I have a guide-book that covers all four cities and nowhere else - I don't think I've ever got such good value-for-money from one book!

We are rather fond of Belgian beer, which seems to end up dictating a large part of our Belgian weekends. The beer is varied, but always strong, which doesn't lend itself to early mornings, or even late nights (a few of them and sleep is not far away). As well as the beer, the easy journey on the Eurostar - taking us from St. Pancras right into Brussels in a matter of a couple of hours - has definitely also helped in our decision to keep on visiting Belgium.

We decided to walk from the station to our hotel, which was right in the centre, pausing along the way to see the Palais de Justice and stopping for a bite to eat nearby. The mighty palace was covered in scaffolding, which it has been for years, apparently - the country does have the money to complete the cleaning job but it just can't be bothered, I was told. I was interested to see whether the city still looked like a bombsite, which it did during my first visit in 2002. I hadn't liked it then, so had relatively low expectations. Fortunately things have improved dramatically - there was barely any rubble, the weather was better and I had much better company! Next to the Palais was a defaced "no entry"sign which I rather liked, and noticed a number of different varieties along the same theme during the visit.

It began to spit as we wandered down the hill from the palace to a restaurant recommended in my by now much-trusted book. We weren't disappointed as we sat in Le Perroquet and ordered the first beer of the trip, a Lamoral. The heavens opened as we ate a yummy lunch of stuffed pittas and grilled camembert, and a couple of locals sat on the adjoining table and gave us a few recommendations. Another beer was ordered given that the rain showed no sign of letting up.

The rain soon cleared and we continued on our journey into the centre, and again I was impressed with the lack of building sites! We passed the stunning church, Petit Sablon, and a couple more amusingly defaced signs.

Preparations were being made for a summer festival, which seemed to consist of a few large stages and music aimed at people half my age. We did a little detour to see the Mannekin Pis, a strange mascot for a city, the sun now shining above us. He was all dressed up (in what looked like a scout outfit) and was surrounded by tourists snapping away or just hanging about aimlessly, perhaps awaiting instructions from their flag-waving guide.

Onwards to Grand Place, where crowds swarmed to see a parade that was in full swing. I couldn't see what was going on through the throng of tourists, but held my camera above my head, as did everyone else, and could just about make out some people dressed in red marching up and down.

We didn't hang around but headed through the picturesque Galerie du Roi to our beautiful hotel (the Dominican).

After check-in we set off towards Tour & Taxi, a redeveloped train station towards the north-west of the city, on the other side of the canal (there is a canal in Brussels, it's just not very pretty); I thought it might hold some photographic opportunities. The building itself was impressive, and looked more like an old prison, but inside was completely dead. It looked as if it needed another few years before it got any kind of buzz. There were no grungy, atmospheric dockside warehouses to photograph.

We walked back into the centre, passing through a canal-side area with stalls and bars - mainly selling caipirinhas and mojitos. The choice of beer was limited to Heineken and Desperado, so we didn't linger.

After meandering back via the St. Catherine area and Grand Place, which was now illuminated in the early evening sun, we settled ourselves down to another couple of beers at the À La Mort Subite, a beautiful bar around the corner from the hotel.

From there we went to another famous beer establishment, the Moeder Lambic Fontainas bar, where more strong beers were quaffed, a cheese and meat platter consumed, and a smitten couple was photographed!

We stayed there a couple of hours until the desire for some frites avec mayonnaise overcame us. We found a fantastic frites van - De Corte - and our desires were fulfilled. Our hotel was just around the corner from the famous Delirium Bar so we decided to go there for one last beer, but it was absolutely packed full of hammered teenagers and stag parties (it wasn't that bad, but it was very busy and very loud), so found a quieter bar opposite where we had a disappointing, far-too-sweet apple-flavoured lambic beer. Not feeling quite satisfied, we then stopped in the Mort Subite bar for a quick Westmalle Trippel, which then led us to our bed by a remarkably early 10:30pm.


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